Top-ranked Gators staying focused, unbeaten in SEC
Published: Tuesday, January 30, 2007 at 5:51 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 30, 2007 at 5:51 p.m.
Florida coach Billy Donovan spent the better part of the preseason telling his players how every opponent would give their best effort against the defending national champions.
He also explained how the top-ranked Gators needed to play to overcome it.
"Our guys understand it's about mind-set," Donovan said. "Our guys are smart enough to realize that if there's any game that they feel unmotivated or complacent, we won't win."
Donovan's message has been received loud and clear. The Gators (19-2, 6-0 Southeastern Conference) have played with intensity and focus most of the season, winning 12 in row and needing a victory against No. 24 Vanderbilt on Wednesday night to match a school record for the best start in league play.
"We know that any team in the SEC on any given night can beat us and expose us out there," center Al Horford said.
Although Florida did have two slip-ups - losses against Kansas and Florida State - the Gators weren't at full strength in either game. Corey Brewer played with a 102-degree fever against the Jayhawks and missed an open 3-pointer at the buzzer that would have given Florida a victory in overtime. Brewer sat out against the Seminoles with mononucleosis.
The Gators haven't lost since, and even overcame recent scares against Mississippi and Mississippi State.
"When our team is healthy and at 100 percent, it can get really ugly," forward Joakim Noah said.
Florida might get its toughest conference challenge against the Commodores (15-6, 5-2), who have won four in a row and are coming off road victories at Kentucky and LSU.
Vandy also beat Alabama and Ole Miss to put together its longest conference winning streak since 1996-97. They are ranked in The Associated Press college basketball poll for the first time since January 2004.
The Gators, though, have won six straight and 11 of 12 against the Commodores.
"Anything can happen, and we know that from what happened last year after going 10-6 in the league," Noah said. "This year, us being 6-0 is because of our experiences from last year. We know that on any given day anybody can beat you. Last year, South Carolina was a team that was on the bottom of the SEC and they came in and beat us twice because we weren't on edge and ready to play.
"The difference this year is we're coming ready to play every night."
Florida leads the nation in field goal percentage (54.4), a clear indication the Gators are playing as unselfishly as they did in winning their final 11 games last season and cruising through the NCAA tournament.
Horford and Noah have been nearly impossible to stop down low, averaging a combined 24.8 points, 16.9 rebounds and 3.4 blocks a game.
Brewer has improved his outside shot, making the speedy and slashing 6-foot-9 forward one of the toughest matchups on the court.
Taurean Green leads the Gators with 13.7 points a game and has an assist-to-turnover ratio near 2-to-1.
Then there's shooting guard Lee Humphrey, who made clutch shots throughout the NCAA tournament. Humphrey is 23-of-32 (.719) from 3-point range in conference play.
Although Florida's next four games - against Vandy, Tennessee, Georgia and Kentucky - might be the toughest stretch of the season, talk about going undefeated in the conference has already started.
But Donovan was quick to squash any thoughts about becoming just the third team since 1956 to make it through the SEC without a loss. Kentucky did it in 1996 and 2003.
"It's not about that right now," Donovan said. "It's about right now. The stuff they hear outside our locker room is all hype, it's poison. If you start believing that stuff and taking it in, I think all it does is robs you of your talent, robs you of your focus and robs you of everything.
"I'm hopeful our guys can keep a level of humility and their focus. To talk about an undefeated season, talk about if we're 14-0. We haven't even made it to the halfway point right now."
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